When discussing the experiences of enslaved people in the United States, the experiences of enslaved black women are often overlooked. While slavery as an institution was an act of violence on black bodies in general, enslaved black women often had to live with the fear of being sexually assaulted by their white masters. Harriet Jacobs was one of the first people to unmask this reality to the American public in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slaver Girl.
Harriet Ann Jacobs was born enslave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. In her narrative, she says, “I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away.” When her mother died, she was given to a mistress that taught her how to read and write, but when that mistress died in 1825, she was willed to a niece of her mistress who was only three years old. This meant that the father of the little girl became Harriet’s master, a man named Dr. James Norcom. He became the first man who sexually harassed Harriet and in her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs highlighted this as an experience of many enslaved women. When Harriet became a mother, Norcom tried to use her children as pawns in order to get her to give into his demands. She continued to refuse and ran away in order to protect her children. However, Norcom continued to search for her and Harriet was forced in to hiding. After hiding in multiple places for short periods of time, she remained in a crawl space over a storeroom at her grandmother’s house for close to seven years.
In 1842, Harriet escaped Edenton, North Carolina on a boat and initially landed in Philadelphia. She eventually made it to New York where she was still not clear of danger. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, enslaved African-American who escaped to the North, were still in danger of being captured and being sent back to their masters. While in New York, she found refuge with the Willis family as their nursemaid. The Wilis’ were prominent New York abolitionists and they kept her hidden from slave catchers. It was here that Harriet began to develop as an abolition activist. In 1852, following Dr. Norcom’s death, Mr. Willis bought Harriet from Norcom’s daughter and granted her freedom.
Harriet Jacobs moved to Rochester, N.Y. and work alongside her brother who was an abolitionist lecturer at the Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room. While she was there, she met Amy Post, a Quaker woman who was an ardent abolitionist and suffragist. She encouraged Harriet Jacobs to write about her story and in 1858, Harriet completed Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The book was not published until 1861 and when it was, Harriet did not identify herself as the author and she changed the names of everyone she wrote about.
During the Civil War, she traveled and spoke against slavery and volunteered with Colored Troops in Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia. While in Alexandria, VA, Harriet and her daughter Louisa established a freedman’s school. Following the war, she continued to work with newly freed slaves. She even went back to Edenton, North Carolina in 1867 to aid newly freed African-Americans in the area.
Harriet Jacobs died in Washington D.C. in 1897. By writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs challenged Americans to recognize that black women were particularly vulnerable within the institution of slavery. Although she did not receive as much acclaim as writers like Frederick Douglas did at the time, her work gives important insight to the lives of black women during slavery.
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